Published Article: The Ghost of Bosscha

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Moesson Magazine  |  March 2019

It was almost past lunch time: 2:30 p.m. in Malabar Tea Plantation, Pangalengan, West Java, 1550 meter high above sea level. On the damp ground fully shaded and surrounded by high tall trees, two women and a boy sat on a mat, opened their lunch box and started to eat their meals. It seemed perfectly normal like a family picnic in the woods, but to me who was there, it was something unusual as they did it in front of an old tomb with burnt joss sticks put ahead of them. From behind the tomb, an old man, the caretaker, came to me and whispered in my ear: “They’re coming for a ritual of talking to Meneer Bosscha.”

Like those who believe in the power of someone’s intercession, this family was attracted by the charm of Karel Albert Rudolf Bosscha, a Dutch man who became the director of the plantation in 1896. They came far from Jakarta to his tomb to look for miracle cures. “People come to this tomb for different purposes,” said Pak Upir, short for Uus Supriyatna, the caretaker. “Meneer Bosscha, for them, is an intercessor who can delivers their prayers to the almighty. They come to ask for health, wealth, or romance,” he added.

I was completely speechless and wondered how could this man be worshipped like as if he was a holy man. Pak Upir then took me closer to the tomb which was shaped like a small circular mausoleum roofed with concrete dome and fenced with iron. As we both stood in front of it, he told me, “I have taken care of this tomb since 1968. Like most workers here, I believe that the ghost of Meneer Bosscha still wander in this plantation to watch us.”

He pointed his finger to a bench outside the fence and said, “Meneer Bosscha was a noble and generous man. I see him every morning around nine o’clock sit on that bench and read newspaper. After that, he will ride his horse and wander around the plantation to inspect the workers. In the afternoon, he will reach the top of Gunung Nini, a small hill in the middle of the plantation, where he takes a break in a gazebo while enjoying the view of the plantation from above.”

I didn’t really buy his ghost story, yet, I wanted to know how the plantation looked like from the top of Gunung Nini. So I walked up to the hill, through the vast tea plantation, and breathed in the cold mountain air. As I reached the gazebo, I looked down and see the whole area of Malabar tea plantation. The view was absolutely spectacular. As far as I could see, everything was green and the tea plants looked like a huge carpet with the path lines as the pattern. There, I met Pak Endang, a worker who took care of the gazebo. We were engaged in a conversation about, again, the ghost of Bosscha. He said that he had seen the sightings of the ghost riding a horse to the top of the hill. “He didn’t smile nor look back at me. He just went straight from below to here,” he said. Normally, I would be terrified and got goose bumps to hear a ghost story. But this one made me curious and want to hear even more about Bosscha.

Back at home in Jakarta, I made a small research and found that Bosscha was born in The Hague in 1865 from a well respected family. His father, Johannes Bosscha, Jr was a physicist and professor at the military academy in Breda before becoming a director of the polytechnic school in Delft. His mother, Paulina Emilia, came from the family of Kerkhoven who was known for their tea empire with vast plantations spreading across West Java. To this point, I could see that through his mother, Bosscha was connected with the Indies.

That connection would later bring him to the colony in 1887 where he stayed with his uncle, Eduard Julius Kerkhoven, for the first six months in Sinagar Tea Plantation, Sukabumi, before following his geologist brother, Jan Bosscha, on a gold expedition in Borneo until 1892. He then returned to his uncle to establish and run a telephone company in West Java while learning about how to cultivate tea. The highlight of his life occurred in 1896 when he was appointed the director of Malabar Tea Plantation by his uncle. Steadily, under his administration, the plantation generated millions of guilders of profit. It was said that by the end of the First World War, he had become one of Java’s richest and most powerful man.

Long before I came to his tomb, I had known Bosscha as a philanthropist and Dutch entrepreneur who made large contribution to the city of Bandung, 52 kilometer north of Pangalengan. He donated his wealth to found school, hospital, science laboratory, university, and the most remarkable one, an observatory in Lembang which now becomes an observatory with the biggest astronomical telescope in Indonesia.

Unlike what has been embedded in the thoughts of many Indonesian about Dutch planters, where they are often pictured as cruel colonists abusing and exploiting their labors, Bosscha was very generous toward his workers. In 1901, when the rate of illiteracy among the natives were high, he founded a free of charge school for the workers’ children to let them learn how to read and write. Amazingly, the school lasts until today and has been transformed into a state owned elementary school of Malabar. Its original building which is made of timber and woven bamboo has been partially burnt down, and the remain now functions as a museum. He also built hundreds of wooden houses for his workers within the plantation.

Few weeks ago, on my re-visiting the plantation, I found myself in front of the tomb again, stood shoulder to shoulder with a group of history enthusiast cyclists having ridden miles away from Bandung in a tour to honor Bosscha. Standing in front of them, the leader told the group that shortly after being awarded as an honorary citizen of the city of Bandung for all his merits and contributions in a grand ceremony in1928, Bosscha passed away in Malabar. It was said that he became seriously ill after accidentally falling from his horse. The open wound on his leg was infected with tetanus. What was so interesting about Bosscha that awed me and the cyclists was that he could speak fluently in the local traditional language of Sundanese. That totally made sense, considering that nearly all his workers were of that ethnic group.

In the following morning, it was drizzling in the plantation. Nearly all the tea plants were covered with thin mist due to the cold weather. I drove slowly to the last thing I need to see in order to trace the footstep of Bosscha before leaving the plantation for home, which was his house. It was a single storey tropical house surrounded with garden and built with chimney. I was allowed to enter the house and look around by Pak Ujang, the caretaker. I marveled at its interior as everything was neatly set the way it had been when Bosscha was still alive. I was mostly attracted with an old piano which, along with the rattan chair, was well preserved, but somehow gave me the feeling of creepy and loneliness. I felt like his soul was still there in that house playing the piano with his fingers. Maybe I exaggerated the situation as I was completely alone inside that old house, just like Bosscha in the past who decided not to get married for his entire life, however I decided to walk out through the back door. Outside the house, Pak Ujang smiled at me. He seemed to understand what just happened to me, and yet again, enthusiastically told another ghost story of Bosscha which, this time, took place at this old house.

Despite my being rational and not seriously taking all the ghost stories of Bosscha, I realized that even though this man had passed away long since ninety years earlier, he still alive in the heart and mind of many people, especially those who live in Malabar Plantation. I guessed it was because of his kind and loving heart, and generosity, or maybe, as was told by Pak Upir, the caretaker of the tomb on the other day, because his last wish before he died was to stay forever in Malabar, the land he loved very much. It was a wish that had come true until today.

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